In 1992, a young singer-songwriter
named John Austin released an introspective
folk-rock tour de force that caught
the attention of those in the Christian
music industry who heard it, and
promised a long career of lyrical
and musical brilliance. Ten years
and four albums after The Embarrassing
Young, Austin is still defining
his craft, and we are the fortunate
spectators. Those ten years in between
have seen many momentous events
for Austin, including a gang attack
in Chicago that left his arm shattered,
several label moves, the death of
producer and friend Mark Heard,
and marriage to his musical collaborator,
Erin Echo, who sang on all but one
of Austin's records. If nothing
else, this gives a songwriter material
to work with.
Austin and Echo recently moved
to Atlanta from Washington D.C.,
where they lived near Austin's childhood
stomping grounds in the Blue Ridge
Mountains of Virginia ("We were
driven out," Austin quips elusively).
The decision to relocate to Atlanta
was made, in part, so the two could
be amongst a large community of
artists, many of whom appear on
Austin's newest disc, Busted
at the Pearly Gates. Many of
the artists on the disc might not
be household names to most, but
studio musicians who have direct
connections to bands and artists
as varied as Mr. Mister and Medeski,
Martin & Wood.
"Atlanta just has really great
musicians," Austin explains, "I
don't know why it is, but it
where we keep going because all
the players are down there." Echo
adds, "Everybody's connected to
everybody else; they do favors
for each other, so it1s a really
great system down there."Austin
mentions that one of the artists
who appears on the new disc, Tom
Gray, wrote the Cyndi Lauper song,
"Money Changes Everything." So how
did Austin and Echo find
with such a wide talent pool? Was
it six-degrees of Cyndi Lauper?
"No. The producer is an old friend
of mine, Martin Kearns. He produced
Erin's record (a solo disc released
in 1998, for which Austin co-wrote
the songs). I met him while I was
recording Byzantium. He played
keyboard on one of the songs. He
introduced me to a lot of those
people. David Labruyere played bass.
We were roommates in Atlanta in
the '90s. I met him when I was opening
up for the Vigilantes of Love. After
I got beat up they kind of nursed
me back to health by letting me
open up for them."
Perhaps the artist Austin has
appreciated working with the
most in his decade-long music
career is Mark Heard, who produced
Austin's debut, The Embarrassing
Young. When asked about his
time with Heard, Austin is quick
to relate his experience. "He was
the only person in this industry
who has ever referred to me seriously
as an artist," Austin says, "When
he introduced me to all these studio
musicians [I looked up to], he would
say, 'This is the artist.' So he
showed me more respect than
in this industry. And I was just
a kid, just a punk kid. So, I'll
never forget that. He took my work
seriously, too. He didn't have to
waste his time on me, you know?
He wasn't making any money off me."
Austin relates, with a laugh,
a story of Heard's encouragement
and humor at one time when Austin
wondered if music was a worthwhile
profession: "I wondered, 'Maybe
I should do something meaningful.'
And he said, 'Somebody's gotta have
a record deal. It might as well
be you.'That's a good attitude!"
Although Heard was an accomplished
producer who worked with a wide
variety of artists, he was best
known for his own music, which was
a showcase for his brilliant lyrics
and prophet-like pronouncements.
Austin remains a fan of Heard's
music, ten years after his death.
"Part of his genius is that every
time I sing his songs, there's something
new. Like, there's a phrase where
I'll say, 'Oh, I took that phrase
for granted before. That's really
great!' That happens all the time."
However, perhaps the most important
advice Heard gave Austin came a
long time in heeding. "He was really
impressed with Erin. In fact, he
said, 'Why don't you just marry
Erin?' I should have just listened
to him." "Eight years later!" Echo
interjects. Both Austin and Echo
regret that their time in the studio
with Heard was so rushed. The
Embarrassing Young was recorded
in two weeks, with Echo's background
vocals completed in one day. This
was not the case, however, with
Austin's newest effort, Busted
at the Pearly Gates, released
four years after his brilliant
album, If I Was a Latin King.
What was going on during those four
"We were making it," Austin explains,
"with no money. It takes a lot longer
when you don't have any money to
make a record. This is a truly independent
record, so it took a little longer
than most. There was no financial
backing at all. It was just a labor
of love, basically." "And [the record
was being made] in Atlanta, and
we lived in D.C." adds
of the long process in making
...Pearly Gates was sifting
through songs with Kearns and deciding
which would make the final cut onto
the album. When asked about the
songs that didn't make the cut,
Austin is reminded of the sheer
volume of rejected songs. "There's
tons! There's like a vault of them.
There were 60 songs, and we recorded
32. And only 20 made it on, just
because there was no room. It was
supposed to be a double record."
Indeed, with Busted at the Pearly
Gates, the listener will detect
a musical shift at the second half
of the album. (Austin suggests that
the disc needs "sectional healing.")
Nevertheless, thoughtful lyrics
and brilliant musicianship are abundant
throughout the album; whatever laborious
processes Austin et. al. went through
to make this album have paid off.
Still, one senses it was an overwhelming
process when listening to Austin
explain what he, Echo, Kearns, and
the other musicians went through
to make this project a reality:
"We had some fun moments, but...I
don't recommend making a record
this way." Every one of Austin's
records to date has had its own
distinct sound and feel. The accessible
folk of The Embarrassing Young
was followed with the stripped down,
raw, and sometimes blunt Authorized
Unauthorized Bootleg, which
chronicled the harrowing experience
of getting jumped by a gang in Chicago,
and the aftermath Austin was left
with. The out-of-print Byzantium
followed. Sporting a fuller band
sound and featuring several high-caliber
musicians, Byzantium was
dubbed a "do-it-yourself masterpiece"
by Performing Songwriter Magazine.
With If I Was a Latin King,
Austin used authentic Latin rhythms
and instrumentation to provide a
background for his exploration of
themes of forgiveness and renewal.
Finally, Busted... brings
the listener 20 songs and more than
70 minutes of music, straight out
of the diary of the late-20th- /
early-21st-century working everyman.
Styles as varied as mountain folk,
swampy blues, and even rock opera
One thing that has remained constant
on Austin's projects, however, is
his insightful lyrics, which range
from the humorous to the profound,
often in the same turn of phrase.
It's obvious that lyrical expression
is something Austin takes seriously.
It's interesting to note, then,
that when writing songs, Austin,
who wasn't musically trained, does
not start with lyrics when penning
"Finishing a song, I think I
pretty much know how to do. But
I don't know where they come from.""All
I know is there are little pieces
of paper all over the house." Echo
"Yeah, boxes full that will never
see the light of day." Austin confirms,
"But basically, the music
comes first, and then I write pages
and pages, and I take one of those
legal pads and I just write pages
of stream of consciousness, and
then I try to find a title. And
if I can find a title to the song,
then I know I've got something."
And the inspiration for the title
of Austin's newest album, Busted
at the Pearly Gates?
"It was Sunday night and I was
watching television. And it just
came to me. That's about it,"
with a laugh. "I think it has something
to do with the image of the "God
is my co-pilot" bumper sticker on
the totaled car," Austin continues,
"It's just chilling. I can't get
it out of my head.
"It can mean a lot of things.
I like it a lot because it just
seems restless. I can't get a hold
on the title, it keeps moving around
on me. But somehow television and
Sunday night were involved."
Knowing Austin's propensity for
writing insightful, intelligent
songs, it is not surprising to
the artists in his and Echo's CD
player often fall in the singer-songwriter
vein: Heard, Aimee Mann, Claire
Holley, Tom Waits, and Bill Mallonee
are mentioned (Austin says he is
drawn to "the poetic and the blunt").
The irony is not lost on Austin
that for years, he was forsaking
music for talk radio.
"He stopped [listening to music],"
Echo notes. "It was kind of hard
for me, 'cause it was pretty
silent around the house. So I knew
things were kind of turning around
when he started listening again."
"I mean, I love music," Austin
explains. "I grew up listening to
my parents' Beatles records. My
dad's a preacher, so they had to
hide them. And then I discovered
rock 'n' roll, and bought my own.
Then I had a revival and burned
my records. I went out and bought
them [again] a couple weeks later.
I just couldn't live without
It's not surprising to find that
an accomplished songwriter such
as Austin has a philosophy about
what makes a song durable over time.
"[A good song] is not out of place
in any generation. There's a song
by Mark Heard called 'Everybody
Loves a Holy War.' I was listening
to it yesterday, and I thought,
'Man! This is like, right now.'
It was written in [the early Eighties].
"There are songs by a great songwriter
like Bob Dylan that I didn't care
for, but there came a time when I
needed the song. What's that Tom
Waits lyric? 'I never heard the
melody until I needed the song.'
Sometimes you just have to trust
these artists. You may need that
Perhaps it's this same time-enduring
approach that Austin adopts for
his songwriting that keeps his songs
seeming fresh, insightful, and clever
ten years after first finding an
audience with those who have ears
to hear. In this industry-driven
era of glam girls, boy bands, and
television jingles, it's likely
Austin's penchant for subtlety and
substance won't find him famous
anytime soon. But that's okay
A luxury of not being famous, "unlike
some of my friends who have been
swept into 'fame,'" he explains,
is that he is able to be real around
And if nothing else, that gives
a real songwriter material to work
Copyright © by Dave Kerschbaum
for The Phantom Tollbooth, January
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